How to create your own work as an actor
Last month I was on a panel about Off Book with the co-star, Mindy Fay Parks, at the Chicago Acting in Film Meetup (CAFM) to talk about Off Book.
The main thrust of the conversation was about actors producing their own work. The conventional wisdom right now is that if actors aren’t getting the kind of work that they want to be getting, they should produce make a web series or a short film to highlight themselves.
This is a great idea.
As an actor, I was always hoping that someone else would see potential in me, cast me, etc. There’s a lot more responsibility as a writer/director/producer, but at least you’re in the driver’s seat. You don’t have to wait for other people to choose you, you can choose yourself.
Caveats, or why I think this advice should be qualified with additional, more nuanced advice
“Create your own work!” usually implies that actors should go out and start writing scripts, which I think should be qualified a bit. Sometimes actors sit down and write something great (like Eric & Mindy with Off Book), but most actors are not (good) writers.
I don’t mean that they lack the ability to become good writers, I mean that they have spent many years honing their craft as actors and much less time or no time at all honing their craft as writers.1
I think it’s unreasonable to expect all great actors to also be great writers. I mean, they’re completely different skills. Some people can do both but most people do one better than the other. I think it’s ridiculous to allow your acting potential to be limited by your writing talent and skill. Is Meryl Streep a great writer? I don’t know and it shouldn’t matter.
What’s your point?
My point is that if you’re an actor and you want to produce your own work, you don’t have to write it. If you think like a producer, you’ll see that there are a lot of options for bringing together a project that will highlight your talents:
- Write a script yourself or with a partner.
- Find a short play that you love and option the rights to it or buy it outright and adapt it to the screen.
- Find a writer to write a script for you.
- Acquire rights to an existing screenplay.
- Find a writer/director and offer to produce their next film if they cast you in it.
- Probably other options that I haven’t thought of.
I already covered #1 so I’ll go through the other options. I’m assuming that we’re talking about a short film here, but this also applies to features or web series.
Acquiring rights to a short play
If I were going this route, I would go to all of the short play festivals and readings in my city until I found one that I really loved and had a role that fit me. Then I would approach the writer and ask if they’ve ever thought about adapting it for the screen (with a lead role for myself).
In exchange, I would produce it (more on producing below). Most unknown playwrights would be interested in this proposition. Even somewhat well-known playwrights would be interested in this if they haven’t done a lot of screen work.
You could also inquire at local playwright incubators in your city, or even online, and ask to read the scripts of playwrights. In Chicago, I would look at Chicago Dramatists as a starting place.
Finding a writer
Similar to the option above, I would go to a lot of stage shows with original work and find a writer whose work I loved. The only difference is that I would approach them about writing something original for me, instead of adapting an existing property.
In exchange, I would offer to produce the film.
Acquire the rights to an existing screenplay
In this case, you’re finding a script somewhere from a screenwriter and either paying them for the script or offering to collaborate with them. I would go to local screenwriting meetups or find local films that had been written by someone other than the director. I have a producer friend who found a script this way on Reddit.
A tangent about actors interacting with directors in public
Before I get to item #5, I’m about to go on a tangent about actors interacting with directors. Skip it if you want.
The way actors (often) try to ‘network’ with directors is by meeting them at meetups and trying to cozy up to them in hopes of getting cast in something. There’s nothing inherently bad about this, although it can make directors uncomfortable if you’re too pushy about it. And sometimes it works — if I meet an actor while I’m in the middle of casting and they’re in the range of what I’m looking for, I will invite them to audition.
Personally, I love meeting actors and will check out their work and jot their name down after meeting them if I think they might be a good fit for a future project.
So while I wouldn’t discourage actors from being friendly with directors, I would say it’s much better to: a) invite them to your shows and comp them so they can see, for free, your talent, or b) become friends with them first in an organic way by inviting them to parties or whatever on a friend level without any hint of expectations or desperation, or c) buy them coffee and ask for their advice because everyone loves to be asked for their advice and sometimes when they go too long without being asked for their advice, they do things like write really long blog posts about it, but I digress.
So why is the normal approach not very good?
First of all, if I meet an actor, I have no idea if they’re any good. That’s why I recommend inviting them to see a show you’re in.
Second, if you’re too aggressive, it feels fake.
And third — you want to make a film RIGHT NOW, not in a year when maybe the director will remember you when he or she is working on their next project. Create your future, etc.
OK, tangent over.
Approaching a writer/director
Here’s what I would do. I would go online and find any local film writer/directors and watch their films. If I couldn’t find their films online, I would try to email or tweet them and ask them where I can find it online. I would go to all the film screenings and festivals and meet directors there.
Then, instead of saying “hi! I’m an actor!” and handing them a headshot or a business card or refrigerator magnet with my face on it, I would tell them that I really enjoyed their film and ask them for their card so I can check out their other work online.
And I would ask all my actor friends to tell me about indie directors that they liked working with or who are doing great stuff.
Then, when I found someone that I was interested in working with, I would approach them with a real proposition. I would say something like “I’m an actor and producer and I’m looking for a collaborator for my next project. I really liked [movie that they made] and I think we have a similar sensibility. To be more specific, I don’t have a script in place yet, but I would be interesting in developing a project with you (I would produce and raise the money). Would you be interested in getting coffee to see if we would be a good match?”
This is so much better than handing out your headshots because you’re coming from a place of agency. You’re not begging them to cast you in something, you’re approaching them as a collaborator who will, most importantly, bring something very valuable to the table. This also works when you already have a script and you need to hire a director to realize it.
What value are you bringing to the table? You’re going to produce.
I recently read a post by the marketing teacher/blogger Seth Godin, called The bingo method:
You might need help to turn an idea into a project.
Most of the time, though, project developers walk up to those that might help and say, “I have a glimmer of an idea, will you help me?”
The challenge: It’s too challenging. Open-ended. To offer to help means to take on too much. And of course people are hesitant to sign on for an unlimited obligation to help with something that’s important to you, not to them.
If we apply Seth’s metaphor to filmmaking, there are four basic squares on the bingo card that need to be filled in:
- A script
In reality, there might be 200 squares to be filled in, but these are the four key ones.
If you’re just an actor, then you’ve got a lot of competition. There are a lot of actors in any big city. And if you’re reading this, then you’re probably not at a point in your career where you’ve distinguished yourself enough to be in high demand. Or you’re in high demand but not for the kind of roles you want to play, however financially rewarding a national Budweiser spot or guest victim on Chicago PD might be.
So, if you were to approach me as just an actor and say “hey, I’m a good actor, can I be in your next film?” the chances are that I’m not going to put all of my current projects aside to produce, raise money, and write a script that will make you look great. I’m going to keep working on my own stuff.
However, the conversation changes if you bring more than yourself to the table. Because the hardest things about indie filmmaking are a) raising money and b) producing.
By producing, I mean handing the hiring of personnel, scouting locations, filing SAG paperwork, preparing releases, arranging for meal delivery, etc.
I fucking hate doing that work.
I do it for my own projects because the pain of working 8 hours at my day job and then coming home to fill out SAG paperwork and correspond with agents and location owners and insurance brokers and rental houses and create schedules and update spreadsheets with too many rows for 5 hours is less than the pain of not making films.
It’s not a labor of love, it’s a pain in the ass that is necessary to get to rehearsal and set and do the creative stuff that I love.
So. If you approached me (or another writer/director) with either the willingness to produce or with money (or the necessary work to raise money via crowdfunding), then I would really really want to talk to you and hear what you have to say.
In the case of Off Book, I was very busy at the time with The Deadline and was up front with Mindy and Eric. I told them that I wouldn’t have time to be a producer on the project or to help raise money and they were OK with that. They also had a script in place. The script needed some rewriting but the concept was great and most of the structure was in place. We just had to polish it a bit and work on the ending. While I did take a short break from my existing projects, I didn’t have to put them on hold for a whole year.
And if any one of the bingo squares is particularly strong, then you need fewer squares or the other squares can be weaker. For example, if you said “I have $50k to shoot a feature film starring myself, but I have no script” then I would say “DON’T WORRY, I WILL WRITE ONE.”
And I know you probably don’t have $50k lying around but you might have $2k lying around or a credit card with a $3k limit or a lot of friends and family that would donate to a crowdfunding campaign. Raising money for a web series or short film isn’t easy but I have plenty of friends that have raised $5k via crowdfunding without being famous or having huge networks or going viral. It’s a lot of work but it’s in the realm of possibility.2
And you don’t have to do all the producing on your own. You can find someone to help you. The important part is that you’re going to lead the project to completion, whether by doing to work yourself or finding friends or experienced people to help you. You are the project manager. You are the person who wakes up every morning with the job of making sure that the film gets made.
In my opinion, raising money and producing are a lot easier than writing a great script. In Chicago, you can take a class on producing that will teach you all the basics. And you can learn a lot by bringing someone with experience onto the project as an AD or an associate producer or just and adviser.
This tends to be less the case with actors that come from the sketch and improv world because, at least in Chicago, almost all the comedy people also write and produce their own sketch shows. ↩
Check out Seed&Spark’s free Crowdfunding for Independence tutorials for guidance. ↩
How to Make a Short Film with SAG Actors (and not kill yourself)
NB: this post was written before SAG created the Short Project Agreement in August 2018. The Short Project Agreement replaces the old Short Film Agreement. You can read about the differences here.
This post is based on my personal experience dealing with SAG-AFTRA’s Chicago local. Most of the information I got from attending a seminar for producers, run by Kathy Byrne, Director of TV/Theatrical here in Chicago, and from actually going through the process while making The Deadline.
This is meant to be a primer for working with SAG under the Short Film Agreement to address the most common questions that come up and demystify the process.
It’s not a complete explanation of every detail of the contract1 Read the contract before you sign it!
Disclaimer: Some of this information has changed since 2016 when I originally wrote it. While I tried my best to get everything right, I may have misunderstood some things. This is not legal advice and is meant to give you an overview and a basic understanding of how things work.
For example, I’m not going to talk about how you’re not allowed to require an actor to be completely nude at an audition and that you must permit them to wear pasties or a G-string. ↩